For one quarter and 11 minutes, everything that could go wrong did go wrong for third-ranked Clemson Saturday night in Death Valley.
The offense was stagnant and was getting pushed around. Though the defense was holding its own, much of the 82,000 packed into Clemson Memorial Stadium wondered if the defense could hold up.
But after quarterback Kelly Bryant got hurt during a second-quarter drive, things changed. And a lot of that had to do with Bryant. After having the breath knocked out of him, the junior came back in the game on the next Clemson possession and his teammates rallied around him as the Tigers rallied to beat No. 13 Auburn, 14-6.
“What a tough, gritty game,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “That’s such a reflection of the heart of our guys. You have to find ways to win games, especially early in the season, and I’m just really proud of our guys, particularly on defense.”
Bryant rejuvenated the defense, too, as Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant dominated the Auburn offensive line as they combined to sack quarterback Jarrett Stidham 11 times, the most since 2004 when they had 11 against Utah State as well.
The school record for sacks in a game is 12 set against Furman in 1996. Bryant led the way with four sacks. He came into Saturday’s game with just 3.5 sacks in his career.
Clemson also had 14 tackles for loss. The defense held Auburn to 117 total yards, including 38 rushing yards on 42 carries. Auburn running back Kamryn Pettway, who led the SEC in yards per game last year, rushed for just 74 yards on 22 carries.
Stidham had just 79 passing yards on 13 of 24 passing.
“Hats off to those guys. Eleven sacks and fourteen tackles for loss,” Swinney said. “Our defensive line controlled the game. Really, all three levels of the defense played well. I can’t say enough good things.”
Swinney was proud of his quarterback as well.
Bryant scored on a 3-yard run with 48 seconds left in the first half to give the Tigers a 7-6 lead at the break. It was a gutsy performance by the junior quarterback after he was knocked out of the game on the previous possession.
However, he came back on the ensuring possession and led the Tigers on an 88-yard scoring drive, which he capped with his own 3-yard touchdown. On the drive, Bryant was 6-for-8 for 79 yards, including a 20-yard pass to Deon Cain on third-and-2 from his own 20 to keep things rolling.
Later on the drive, facing third-and-10, Bryant hit Ray-Ray McCloud for a 29-yard gain on a perfect over-the-shoulder catch to the Auburn 9. He also hit Hunter Renfrow on third-and-4 pass earlier to keep the drive going.
Bryant finished the game 19-for-29 for 181 yards, while also running for 59 yards and both Clemson touchdowns.
The Tigers (2-0) looked to be in trouble when Auburn recovered a Ray-Ray McCloud fumble at the Clemson 10-yard line late in the first quarter, but the defense held and Auburn only got a 28-yard Daniel Carlson field goal.
Clemson was outgained 74 yards to 6 in the opening quarter, yet trailed just 6-0 with 14:17 left in the first half. Auburn used a 15-play, 69 yard drive on the game’s opening possession that took 7:47 off the clock. Carlson made a 24-yard field goal with 7:13 left in the first quarter for a 3-0 lead.
Despite the slow start, Clemson outgained Auburn 284 to 117 as both defenses dominated much of the game.
“This is the type of game that you can really use to help your team grow when preparing for conference play,” Swinney said. “I can’t say enough about the way that Kelly Bryant performed. Hunter Renfrow, Ray-Ray McCloud and a lot of our playmakers were great. Special teams played well, too. It was just a great all-around performance.”
Clemson took a 14-6 lead, with 11:47 to play in the third quarter, thanks to a 27-yard rushing touchdown by Bryant. The drive covered 79 yards in eight plays over the course of 3:07.
Bryant hit McCloud twice in the air for 6 yards and 33 yards. Renfrow also made a 7-yard reception for a first down. The drive culminated with Bryant’s rushing touchdown as he bounced off of a defender and maintained his footing to score from 27 yards out.
Clemson will travel to Louisville next week to face a Lamar Jackson and a Louisville offense that racked up over 700 yards in its win over North Carolina.